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    Florida Drought Fuels Wildfires

    By by Frank Strait, senior meteorolgist
    April 11, 2012, 6:11:48 AM EDT


    A long-term drought in parts of the Southeast, especially in Florida, has reached severe levels as measured by the Climate Prediction Center's Palmer Index. The drought is having far-reaching effects, the most obvious being tinderbox dry vegetation that is fueling a high risk for wildfires.

    "This is normally the dry season in Florida," AccuWeather's Expert Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said. "But it's even drier than usual and this comes after a dry 2011 in parts of the state."

    A look at the year-to-date rainfall deficits for the Southeast shows the seriousness of the drought so far in 2012.

    Jacksonville is one of the driest stations in the nation this year relative to normal, as only 31 percent of normal rainfall has fallen there; a deficit of nearly 8 inches. Fort Myers, Fla., is also very dry at 31 percent of normal rainfall so far this year. Many are reporting less than half of normal rainfall, and most are reporting rainfall less than normal for 2012 to date.

    Only one location in Florida, Miami, is reporting above-normal rainfall.

    The drought has led to several wildfires across the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. By far, the worst of the wildfires are in Florida. As of Monday morning, 18 different wildfires were reported across the Sunshine State. Most of the fires are relatively small, engulfing no more than a few hundred acres.

    However, the County Line Fire in the Osceola National forest near the Columbia-Baker County border has scorched about 11,000 acres. The County Line Fire has been responsible for poor visibility along I-10 in parts of North Florida, and smoke from the wildfire has spread into the Jacksonville area Monday as well. Smoke from the County Line Fire is clearly seen on visible satellite pictures of northern Florida.


    The wildfires around the Southeast have contributed to reduced air quality in some areas. Early Monday afternoon, the air quality near Jacksonville was rated as "unhealthy" by AIRNow.gov, which recommended that those with lung or heart problems, the elderly and children avoid prolonged heavy exertion.

    Many communities in the Southeast, especially in Florida, have had to institute water restrictions as well. The most stringent restrictions are in northern and central Florida, where many communities are limiting car washing and lawn watering to one day per week and only during the evening and early morning hours.

    The drought is having a significant impact on farmers in the region as well. The crops in the area are requiring much more irrigation than usual, further stressing area rivers and streams.

    The forecast does not show much hope for improvement, especially in the short term. No significant rain is in the forecast for the next week or so in Florida, according to Kottlowski. "There's some hope for significant rain during the middle or latter part of next week when the storm behind the one hitting the west crosses the country," he said. However, the rain is far from guaranteed, he said. "It wouldn't surprise me if in the end, the storm that might bring some rain to Florida late next week ends up bypassing them to the north," said Kottlowski.

    The medium- to long-range forecast is not looking much better, either. According to AccuWeather.com's Paul Pastelok, expert long-range meteorologist and leader of the AccuWeather.com Long-Range Forecasting Team, most of Florida will see below-normal rainfall for the rest of April and in May. His forecast does show some hope for a return to near-normal rainfall in June, though.


    If you see a wildfire burning, let us know. Send your pictures to @AccuWeather. We value your photos, but we value your life more. Please take shelter in dangerous situations.

    Kottlowski also mentioned an apparent correlation between dry weather in the spring and the hurricane season. "Usually when Florida experiences a dry spring, the chances are better for a tropical storm or hurricane to hit the state later in the year," he said. If that works out this year, it would bring welcome rain to the parched state, but, of course, bring with it the usual damaging consequences of a tropical system.

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